Slavery in Qatar: did The Guardian investigation get the full picture?

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Oct 20 2013

A recent investigation by British newspaper The Guardian about slavery-like conditions of construction works in the Qatar has caused a media storm. But are there some sides to the story that The Guardian overlooked?

In a provocative essay in new Nepali magazine La.lit, Kathmandu-based Devendra Bhattarai argues that Nepalis are exploiting other Nepalis during the migration process - to the extent that may be even more guilty of abuse than the Qataris that The Guardian piece exposes. Corrupt manpower companies and their agents in Nepal - and Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and other labour-sending countries  - trap would-be migrants with high recruitment fees and false promises that will lock them into years of debt before they have even set foot on the plane. Qatari construction companies may have blood on their hands for withholding passports and forcing workers to live in unsanitary conditions, but the cycle of exploitation starts close to home:

"The strange wave of rage in social media, fueled by The Guardian’s facts and statistics, fails to comprehend the core issue. While such descriptive phrases as “Nepalis [in the Gulf] living in deplorable conditions”, “Qatar indeed is an open jail [for Nepalis]”....“The ugly face of modern day slavery” were being used in English newspapers to general acclaim, many experts found it in their interest to sweep some of the more delicate issues under the carpet. On the same day The Guardian published its investigation on labour exploitation, a Nepali newspaper carried a piece titled “Labour Ministry in the grip of manpower lobby”. No one, nowhere, raised a single question about the notorious nexus of manpower companies and agents – something that is at the heart of the problem" Full article available here .

This article was written in Nepali, and was translated into English by translator, writer and poet Nayan P. Sindhuliya.

However, Guardian journalist Peter Pattison had actually investigated the issue of Nepalis dealing with manpower agents in Kathmandu ahead of their departure to the Gulf in a subsequent article. His piece paints a bleak picture of migrants being pushed into signing contracts in languages that they could not understand and being charged hefty recruitment fees by labour brokers.

Some of his interviews with migrants revealed that there is often a shocking difference between what brokers promise, and reality:

Many migrants do not see their contract until they reach the airport, by which time most feel it is too late to change their mind if the terms are not what they had agreed verbally. One worker, who was waiting for his contract at a departure gate, said: "You have to trust the brokers. I have been assured that my agent will try to get me the salary he promised, but even if that does not happen, I will still go."

As Bhattarai points out, the Nepali press and the international human rights community has known about this dynamic for a long time. His frustration is that the government has failed to respond act. An Amnesty International report written in 2011 shows that corrupt manpower agents - and the Nepali government's apathy about cracking down on them - are a major part of the problem:

Amnesty International interviewed nearly 150 migrant workers and found that 90 per cent had been deceived by recruitment agencies regarding their employment contract. Some had to work without rest days, in dangerous conditions, or received salaries of less than half of what was promised.

“Nepalese people seek a better life abroad but fail before they even leave home, as recruitment agents – who earn huge profits – deceive them regarding their terms of contract, which is a key element in trafficking,” said Norma Kang Muico, Amnesty International’s Researcher for Asia-Pacific Migrants’ Rights.

Workers traveling to the Gulf pass through many stages in the migration process - finding a job through a manpower agent, gaining a work visa, and eventually arriving on site to start work on the construction mega-projects of the Gulf - a thoughtful piece by Nepali magazine Dreams shows the various stages of the process.

At every stage of their journey, migrant workers are vulnerable to being let down or taken advantage of by someone, be they a recruiter, a government official or a Qatari construction company. Bhattarai's article in La:lit and Pattison's in-depth reporting are a timely reminder of the complexity and truly global nature of the problem of migrant worker abuse.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East